Sarah Blakeslee (1912-2005)
Strasburg, Virginia
Oil on canvas
Circa 1935/36
27” x 60” sight
35.5” x 68” overall

Sarah Blakeslee was the artist commissioned as part of the Works Progress Administration to provide a mural for the newly built post office for Strasburg, Virginia. Her painting of the apple harverst remains in the post office building there to this day.   She painted the Apple Orchard  prior to receiving the commission and it she probably used it as a study or an example of her work as she prepared her submission.  An outgrowth of the 1934 Public Works of Art Program (PWAP), the Treasury Department Section of Fine Arts was established to commission murals and sculpture for new Federal buildings including post offices. Artists were selected through national and regional competitions, though “Contemporary Realism” was the preferred style.  During the nine years of its existence, 572 murals were commissioned.

The Federal art programs did more than just employ artists, the programs promoted the idea that art is an integral part of society. In so doing, it was hoped the murals would serve as a salve to a wearied public. The Apple Orchard and many of the other murals portray a vital country where harvests were good, everyone was working and hard work and perseverance win the day. While the Depression is severe, it is temporary . . . American values will prevail.The Apple Orchard was the study for the much-simplified final mural that was placed in the post office in 1938.  For the study, Blakeslee has produced a colorful scene, full of local life and industry. She was able to convey an impression of the apple harvest activities using broad strokes with the sparest bit of detail and using every bit of the canvas to tell her story.

Sarah Blakeslee studied painting as a teenager at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington DC. She enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Art where she met instructor and North Carolina native Francis Speight (1896-1989) whom she married after graduation in 1936. The couple settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where they lived until 1961, when Speight accepted a job as artist-in-residence at East Carolina State University in Greenville, North Carolina. In Greenville, Sarah painted landscapes, portraits and still lifes and taught art.

Sarah Blakeslee was a regular exhibitor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1938 until 1964, and showed work at the Corcoran Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago, the North Carolina Museum of Art and the 1939 World’s Fair.  Among the institutions which hold examples of her work are the North Carolina Museum of Art; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; the Greenville Museum of Art in North Carolina, which dedicated a gallery to her work and that of her husband in 2002; the Muskegon Museum of Art and the Cameron Art Museum. She is also represented by several pieces in the Johnson Collection of Art from the Southern United States in Spartanburg, SC. Her papers are held along with those of her husband in the library of the UNC at Chapel Hill.

Exhibition history: Painting America, Mural Art in the New Deal Era; Midtown Galleries, New York, 1988.


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